February 1863: “We are all right-side up and above water.”

Claire Arnold, Intern

Letter from Frederic Augustus James to Mary ("Molly") James, 15 February 1863

Letter from Frederic Augustus James to Mary (`Molly`) James, 15 February 1863

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    In this endearing letter, Frederic Augustus James writes to his five-year-old daughter Molly from his post aboard the USS Housatonic. With the tenderness of a father long separated from his children, James writes conversationally, avoiding talk of war and reporting on the interesting things he sees in his travels.

    Frederic Augustus James was born on 27 November 1832 in South Scituate, Massachusetts (modern day Norwell). His father, William, was a shipbuilder in that town and Frederic grew to be a carpenter and ship joiner. In 1855 he married Ellen Foster. The two made their home in East Boston where they welcomed two daughters, Mary, called Molly, and Ellen, called Nellie. In August 1862, shortly after President Lincoln issued a call for troops, James enlisted in the Navy, joining the crew of the USS Housatonic.

    Sailing from Boston on 11 September 1862, the Housatonic took position outside the port of Charleston, South Carolina, joining a blockade that stretched over 3,550 miles along the coast of the Confederate States. Established in April 1861, the blockade was intended to both interrupt the South’s supply lines and to damage its export-reliant economy. By 1863 it was having a noticeable effect, causing food shortages, lack of military supplies, and growing inflation that would contribute significantly to the eventual defeat of the Confederacy. The Housatonic remained relatively stationary, occasionally giving chase to blockade runners. Enclosed with this letter, James sent his daughters a sketch of the Housatonic in position, with Fort Sumter in the background, drawn by one of his shipmates.

    James was able to write often to his wife and daughters. In letters like this one he teases the girls, describes “birds and butterflies” he thinks they may like, and entreats them to “send me some of your drawings…[and] tell me all about your plays.” He displays a biological curiosity that is not only for the children’s sake. To an untraveled New Englander like James, South Carolina presented exciting new flora and fauna. In this letter he describes “a pretty little bird…[with] a bright yellow spot on its back,” perhaps a yellow-rumped warbler. In others he recounts the antics of stormy petrels and crabs.

    Although James’ tone is light, it is clear in this letter, and others, that he dearly misses his family. Joking exaggerations like “I wonder if I shall know either of my little girls then [upon his return to East Boston], for I suppose your old bonnets that you wore last year are about worn out and you will have on some other ones,” disguise a more serious fear of missing out on his daughters’ childhoods. But James seems to remain in good spirits, blithely reassuring his wife at the end of this letter that “we are all right-side up and above water.” Not surprisingly, it appears James intended to return home when his one-year service was completed. Writing in August 1863, he tells Ellen, “if I can’t be of any real use in helping to finish up this job, it seems to me that it is not my duty to stay [in the Navy.]”

    James and several of his shipmates were captured by Confederate forces in September 1863. He continued to correspond with his wife from various prison camps throughout the South. Writing from one camp he recounts receiving the heartrending news of Mary’s death by typhus in October 1863.

    Frederic Augustus James ultimately landed in the infamous Andersonville prison, where he died 15 September 1864, almost exactly one year after being taken prisoner. Only one letter to his wife survives from this time, but his diary reveals that while at Andersonville he was reunited with some of his crewmates from the Housatonic. The Housatonic was sunk by the H. L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine, in February 1864, becoming the first ship in naval history to be sunk by such a vessel.

    Sources for further reading:

    This is one of several dozen letters contained in the Frederic Augustus James Papers. The collection is comprised almost entirely of letters from James to his wife and daughters written during his service in the Civil War. James’ diary documents his year in various Confederate prisons, including Andersonville. The diary was presumably removed from Andersonville by one of James’ shipmates upon his release shortly after James’ death.

    Fowler, William M. Under Two Flags: The American Navy in the Civil War. New York: Norton, 1990.

    James, Frederic Augustus. Civil War Diary: Sumter to Andersonville. Edited by Jefferson J. Hammer. Rutherford, NJ : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1973.